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Heroic self-sacrifice.

Pursuant to legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Bush last year, Salt Lake City's VA hospital was renamed the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center during a brief ceremony on January 8. How Wahlen came to merit this honor--and more--is a story of bravery, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

George Edward Wahlen, 79, was a Navy Pharmacist's Mate Second Class during World War II. As a 20-year-old medic assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 26th Regiment, 5th Marine Division, he was part of the initial invasion of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945.

One week later, Wahlen's company advanced to a hill where it faced a barrage of enemy machine-gun fire. "We were called back, but I heard two guys had been hit on the right flank, so I crawled over to them," he recalled for the January 9 Salt Lake Tribune. Both Marines were dead, so Wahlen moved toward the left flank to help other wounded Marines, but was blocked by a Japanese grenade position some 30 yards away. "I saw where the grenades were coming from," he told the Tribune, so he took a grenade from another Marine, crawled to the Japanese position, and "terminate[d] the threat" by dropping the grenade on its occupants.

As Wahlen resumed crawling to help the wounded Marines, a grenade exploded nearby, hurling shrapnel fragments into his right eye and knocking him out. When he regained consciousness moments later, he bandaged his eye and helped a badly wounded Marine off the hill. Upon learning that another platoon had taken casualties, Wahlen volunteered to assist them. Altogether, he helped rescue 14 wounded comrades that day.

On March 2, while trying to move yet another wounded Marine to safety, a shell landed nearby. Shrapnel struck the young medic in the shoulder and back. "I had a Marine check it out and bandage it," be recalls, and though he could have been evacuated at that time, he opted to stay. "When you've been with these guys, they're like family," he says. "You don't want to let them down."

The next day, Wahlen was making his way to an artillery crater to help five wounded Marines when another shell landed nearby. A chunk of shrapnel struck near his right ankle, breaking his leg. "I bandaged myself up, took a shot of morphine and crawled over and started helping a Marine that had both his legs blown off," he recollects. He then tried to reach another shell hole, but was too seriously injured to continue. At last, he was himself placed on a stretcher and evacuated.

On October 5, 1945, while hospitalized at Camp Pendleton, California, Wahlen received the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award for military valor, from President Harry Truman. He later attended college, then joined the Army and served in Korea and Vietnam before retiring from the military in 1969. He then worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 14 years.

George Wahlen's Medal of Honor citation, after summarizing the details of his actions on Iwo Jima, concludes: "By his dauntless fortitude and valor, Wahlen served as a constant inspiration and contributed vitally to the high morale of his company during critical phases of this strategically important engagement. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of overwhelming enemy fire upheld the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service."
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Title Annotation:The Goodness Of America
Author:Lee, Robert W.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 5, 2004
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